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This weekend marks the end of the Eschenbach era for the National Symphony Orchestra, a seven-year period that promised a renaissance for the good-but-never-great orchestra, and came up short. It was that classic D.C. sports strategy: blow all your money on a really high-profile player, watch the ticket sales swell, and wait for the team to start winning. Alas, like RGIII, or Michael Jordan (remember him?), a superstar alone can’t carry a team, no matter how much you pay him. The NSO’s outgoing music director, Christoph Eschenbach, made an annual salary of $2.7 million as of 2015, the last year of the Kennedy Center’s IRS 990 forms available. That’s nothing compared to, say, the $21 million Bryce Harper will get from the Nationals this year. But it did make him the highest paid conductor in the country, which was always odd being that the NSO is not the highest-profile orchestra in the country.
Eschenbach was supposed to fix that. He had everything the Kennedy Center was looking for when they hired him: classical royalty status, cemented from before his conducting days, when he was a world renowned pianist; tenure at a Big Five orchestra (Philadelphia); a tragic-to-triumphant biography (war orphan-turned-maestro); and personal relationships with classical stars who could be called on to grace the marble shoebox (Rene Fleming and Lang Lang, among others).
He was, perhaps most importantly, a team player, something you can’t count on with artistes. He worked with the board. He worked with the musicians’ union. He fundraised. He did all the things European conductors, who have much more dictatorial power over their orchestras, don’t have to do, and don’t like to do. He did pretty much everything we could have wanted him to do except make the NSO a Big Five orchestra itself. Which was an impossible task to begin with—such status is more a question of historical legacy than present-day talent. But for an orchestra with the word “national” in its name, it’s still a sore point that it’s never been nearly the best in the nation.
Under Eschenbach’s predecessor, Leonard Slatkin, the “national” could at least have referred to the music; Slatkin made a special effort to cultivate and program American composers. But then the Kennedy Center tired of him and he was gone. Better to have European sophistication, a line of thinking that has carried over into Eschenbach’s successor, Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who starts next season.
Eschenbach wasn’t perfect. He could be erratic, and the musicianship could vary quite a bit week to week. He spent a lot of time in his own head and made seat-of-the-pants decisions, something that so annoyed the players in Philadelphia that they mutinied. He could be frivolous to the point of being silly, sometimes conducting whole pieces just by nodding or swaying like a metronome. Most crucially, he was never terribly concerned with technique, something the orchestra could have used more of.
But he had his strengths, and this final program played to them perfectly. Any conductor, and any orchestra, can do Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in their sleep, but few could do it better than Eschenbach. A consummate romantic who specializes in the great composers, Eschenbach puts feeling into a familiar work like no other. “The Ode to Joy” is one of those things you’ve heard hundreds of times, more if Die Hard is part of your family Christmas tradition. But try not to get choked up at Eschenbach’s majestic and even surprising take, delivered by the reliable Choral Arts Society and a superb cast of soloists (Leah Crocetto, J’nai Bridges, Joseph Kaiser, and Solomon Howard). He’s a master at building tension, making the first three movements nearly one big slow crescendo, exploding in cathartic release with the cries of freude! Before then, he takes the orchestra on a very speedy, soft molto vivace, an understated interpretation that shows off the orchestra’s nimbleness. Eschenbach conducted with big sweeping gestures, largely on the balls his feet, clearly in his happy place. His glee was infectious.
Eschenbach’s ability to transmit his own enthusiasm to the audience has always been crucial in his performances of unfamiliar works, an admirable emphasis during his tenure. The opening piece, as in many of Eschenbach’s programs, was by a contemporary and friend of Eschenbach’s, the Chinese composer Bright Sheng, who came up on stage after the performance. Called Zodiac Tales, it’s a six movement work from 2005 inspired by the Chinese zodiac that was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eschenbach. This was less crisp than the Beethoven piece, with lots of staggered horn lines that melted together into a brassy cacophony; a reminder that for all of Eschenbach’s promise to improve musicianship, some sections have a ways to go. It worked best when it slowed down to languid solos, including by principal cellist David Hardy; the cellos still being the NSO’s crown jewel going back to the days of Slava Rostropovich.
Slava was the guy who put the NSO on the map, and every director since him was supposed to be the next Slava. Eschenbach wasn’t, or more charitably, wasn’t around long enough to make as much of mark as he might have. But to chalk up Eschenbach’s tenure as a disappointment would miss what he did. The NSO didn’t change all that much but did get a little better. It broadened its repertoire as well as geographic audience, touring South America. It wasn’t consistently great, but certain programs were transcendent. I still remember a pair of concerts from 2012, early in Eschenbach’s tenure: Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Both were the only operas by their respective way-famous composers, and their performances were perplexing and gorgeous, unlike any Beethoven or Bartók you’d ever heard. You think you know a composer, and then Eschenbach shows you you really don’t; that’s always been his talent.
The program repeats Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Sold out.